Astana SCO Summit: Evaluating India’s Strategic Gains and Diplomatic Leverage

Srikanth Kondapalli

For the first time since 2017, Prime Minister Narendra Modi did not attend the SCO summit meeting, held July 3-4 in Kazakhstan, ostensibly due to the ongoing parliamentary session. However, External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar was there to articulate India’s position and interests.

By focusing on multipolarity, counter-terrorism, energy security and regional security issues at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit meeting at Astana last week, India is preparing to counter such challenges at the multilateral levels but also shielding itself from the uncertainty in the global and regional orders.

For the first time since 2017, Prime Minister Narendra Modi did not attend the SCO summit meeting, held July 3-4 in Kazakhstan, ostensibly due to the ongoing parliamentary session. However, External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar was there to articulate India’s position and interests. He also met his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi in what appears to be yet another attempt to resolve the armed stalemate on the borders since June 2020.

While it is hard to pinpoint tangible benefits for India from the SCO summit, it is necessary to constantly remind adversaries, and friends, of the country’s red lines, and articulate and pursue concerns in several domains at a multilateral forum. More so in the SCO, given its regional heft and consensus approach.

First, of the three main issues PM Modi flagged on geo-politics, geo-economics and geo-technology, invariably the China equation became crystal clear, though such signals have to be packaged in broad terms given the nature of multilateralism. Modi, for instance, raised “cross-border terrorism”, which was evidently aimed at Pakistan, also a member of the SCO. Over the past decade, China has been shielding its “all-weather friend” at the 1267 (the Al-Qaeda) committee of the UN Security Council on flimsy grounds, despite promising to weed out “all forms of terrorism”.

By raising yet again the terrorism issue, indirectly, India is castigating countries for adopting double standards on a prime national security issue that most SCO states are facing. The recent episodes of Almaty riots of January 2022, Crocus city hall blasts at Moscow in March, and attacks at Reasi, Doda and Kathua areas in Jammu in June this year, make amply clear the seriousness of the issue.

The SCO established a Regional Anti-Terrorism Structure at its Tashkent summit. Coordination among different law enforcement agencies exist among the SCO States. They also conduct annual “Peace Mission” exercises with the participation of military forces.

Yet, after securing its interests among SCO States, specifically Kazakhstan and Pakistan, against Uighur insurgency, China has been suggesting to the rest of the SCO States to fend for themselves on the counter-terrorism issue.

Modi also pitched the SCO States to develop “multiple, reliable and resilient” supply chain mechanisms, given the disruptions caused during the Covid pandemic, as well as brace for technological disruptions in AI and cyber domains. While the Eurasian region is one of the least integrated and globalised regions in the world with under-developed market mechanisms, India is offering an alternative to the centralised planning systems of the region, and alerting them to the dangers of monopolies and depending exclusively on a declining China market.

India was also able to wade through the current regional security issues of the Russia-Ukraine conflict and the situation in West Asia. Specifically on the energy front, discounted oil imports from Russia were able to cushion the domestic market in India, though making progress on the International North-South Transport Corridor with Iran, Russia and other Eurasian countries could have further assured India on the energy front. Even on the transport corridors, China’s approach has been exclusive rather than inclusive, and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor intrudes on Indian sovereignty.

A second area of the Astana outing is the meeting on the sidelines with Wang Yi. The last meeting of the two leaders at the Johannesburg BRICS meeting last year was disappointing, given the last minute rescinding on the consensus reached over the border stand-off.

While Jaishankar spoke about the unfinished job of implementing “dis-engagement and de-escalation” agreed upon in early 2022, Wang on the other hand reiterated China’s position on placing the border issue at an “appropriate” level in the bilateral relations — meaning essentially little progress in resolving the border stalemate since 2020.

Since 1996, the Shanghai Five — and then the SCO since 2001 — have mentioned respecting sovereignty and territorial integrity of countries. In disputed areas, the SCO talks about observing restraint, no troop mobilisation, and even evolved a set of confidence building measures. By indirectly pointing to the situation on the India-China border since 2020, India is telling the world how the SCO Charter and norms have been violated.

While concrete results may not have been achieved, India needs to constantly raise issues of concern at such multilateral fora, given the grandstanding that generally happens at such venues without much accountability.

Srikanth Kondapalli is the Dean of the School of International Studies and a Professor of China studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

This article was first published in Deccan Herald as What India gained from Astana SCO summit on July 6, 2024

Disclaimer: All views expressed in the article belong solely to the author and not necessarily to the organisation.

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Acknowledgment: This article was posted by Bhaktiba Jadeja, a research intern at IMPRI.